Sooner or Later, We Will Hurt You

handscrossWhen I pastored a larger church, I used to teach membership classes every year. Each year I would invite members of the congregation to take the class again as a kind of refresher course. It gave them an opportunity to brush up on a little denominational history as well as to reacquaint themselves with their membership vows. More importantly, their presence in the classes always added an extra dimension and perspective to the give and take of each session.

One such member was sitting in the class one day when I made the following statement:

“Sooner or later, we will hurt you.”

I remember glancing over at the long-standing member. His eyes got as big as saucers, and his jaw almost hit the floor. He was shocked that I would say such a thing.

I suspect the prospects were just as surprised (although they didn’t show it quite as much). Some of you reading this are probably surprised as well. Why would any pastor say such a thing about his or her congregation?

The answer to that is really quite simple. I said it because it’s the truth. Maybe more importantly, I said it because I didn’t want anyone to run blindly into the commitment of membership. I didn’t want any of them to expect perfection from our hearty band of believers.

I’m the chief sinner.

In case any of you hadn’t noticed, the church is not perfect. It is, in fact, quite imperfect. If we could just get rid of all the people, we’d probably be okay (I’m being facetious, of course). Human beings are always a problem because they’re…well…human. They have good days and bad days. They sometimes lose it with their counterparts. Occasionally, they display an inordinate lack of tact. As the Apostle Paul indicated, we’re all sinners, “of whom I am chief.”

We are human, and as humans, we are messed up. But, as we like to say, “Ya gotta love us!” (At least, that’s what the Bible says.) We have chinks in our armor and dirt on our faces. They call us the church, and sooner or later, we will hurt you.

The next thing I said to that class was, “And sooner or later, you’ll hurt us too.” It happens. We can’t seem to help ourselves. The real question is what do we do when it occurs?

holierthanthouThat becomes one of the real tests of discipleship. Unfortunately, we sometimes turn tail and run. We don’t need this, and we’re outta here. Regrettably, that’s all too often the case. If a brother or sister in Christ hurts us, it’s easy just to leave.

It’s also a real telltale sign. It implies that we were following people rather than Jesus. It’s not Jesus who wronged us, but it’s Jesus we blame. We tend to forget that we’re just another imperfect part of that imperfect whole. Maybe we should put on our big boy pants and deal with it. It might be another good time to ask, “What would Jesus do?”

A Response to the CUP Proposal

I have always been sensitive to the Apostle Paul’s prodding to “preserve the unity which the Spirit gives…” When I read the CUP Proposal to General Conference, I was a bit caught off guard. I’m not sure why. I should have expected it.

I recently read “Finding Our Way” in which Bishop Kenneth Carter, Jr. reluctantly suggested we might have to create three new denominations loosely held together under the banner of United Methodism (or ostensibly some other name). He suggested three “institutional expressions” which he called Progressive, Evangelical, and Mainstream. It seems we’re always moving away from the Apostle’s insistence on unity. Schisms are much easier to pull off than working to maintain what we have.

In recent years, the Episcopal Church has had the same kind of woes. As we watch things like the Anglican Realignment, it feels like we’re looking into our own future. Is it inevitable?

As most of you, I have loving friends on various sides of the issues we face. While I dread a divorce of this kind, it seems to me we’ve been headed toward this for years. In fact, this was a growing problem when I entered pastoral ministry thirty-six years ago. It’s only gotten worse over that time.

While the CUP (Covenantal Unity Plan) is an admirable attempt to save the UMC as we know her, I fear it’s only going to be another measure that will stem the tide for an instant or two. Sooner or later, the dam will break. Even now, voices can be heard lining up against the tenets of the plan.

I applaud the framers of the plan for their efforts. I wish them well and pray that the plan (or some offshoot of it) will take hold and be used by the Spirit of God to pull us back together. The energies used in all this wrangling could certainly be directed toward more profitable endeavors in God’s Kingdom.

My fear, however, is that this will become just another bandage that will inevitably have to be torn off to expose our wound to the air. Some hair and skin will be ripped away when that happens. More wounds will be suffered in the process of healing the main one.

Over these many years, our denomination has served me admirably. I hope I have done the same for her as well. Yet when all is said and done and the dust settles, I will serve Jesus Christ and him alone (regardless of the name on the sign out front). My earnest prayer is for the people affected by our disagreements. May they be spared the effects of our fallout, and may God’s Kingdom prevail in their lives.

 

Dave Zuchelli[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and the author of The Last Wedding. He is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel UMC in Great Falls, VA where he as served for the past twenty-one years.]

Angels Go South for the Winter

“Angels have a lot to do and they keep very busy. If you lose a tooth, an angel comes in through your window and leaves money under your pillow. Then when it gets cold, angels go south for the winter.” ~Sara, age 6~

AngelPatternKids have big imaginations. Somewhere, however deeply hidden, there’s some nugget of truth that seeds their imaginings. If not truth, then some inaccuracy was fed to them along the way. There are many other possibilities than this, of course. My point, however, is that we often lay some errant thinking on a kid and never correct it as they get older. These become fodder for the imagination. Sometimes, these get substituted for the truth.

“Some of you are already getting angry with me…”

I wonder how often these “truths” get carried into adulthood? How many kids are under gross misconceptions regarding their own faith. Sara’s imagining is harmless, even humorous. She’s only six. Someday she’ll realize that angels don’t fly south for the winter (I hope).

Some of you are already getting angry with me because it sounds like I want to deprive children of their magical time of innocence. Trust me, I don’t. I’m only cautioning that sometimes we’re pretty careless with the truth when it comes to children.

“My angel is my grandma who died last year. She got a big head start on helping me while she was still down here on earth.” ~Ashley, age 9~

This one is a tad more serious. Ashley is nine and still believes people turn into angels when they die. We could say she’ll outgrow that, but I’ve run across several adults who still believed that one. What’s worse, it may well have been an adult that passed that one on to Ashley. Now, in her mind, grandma is an angel. That might never change.

I say that because, over the years, I’ve observed people in their journeys of faith. Watch a person as they grow from toddler to adolescent into adulthood. What you often see is the maturing process that takes place.

Spiritual immaturity is rampant.

People grow in their emotions beyond immaturity. People become mature physically. Most grow in their financial understanding toward fiscal maturity. Folks mature in their decision-making, their cultural tastes, and the way they view life in general.

What’s often missing, later in life, is spiritual maturity. We help people grow in every way possible except spiritually. That’s not always the case, but it’s certainly common.

Even the church seems to contribute to that deficit at times. We push things like Sunday School for children but think adults no longer need any type of spiritual formation. Imagine a financial advisor teaching someone to count money and pay bills but never counseling them about 401k plans or IRA contributions. Ridiculous!guardian-angel

It’s just as ridiculous to think adults can get by on some fable they learned when they were kids. It’s no wonder so many people think Jesus is a fairy tale. We just don’t take these things seriously. Maybe we should ALL go south for awhile.

Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and the Countdown to Normalcy

Fat-TuesdayFat Tuesday—As you probably know, Fat Tuesday (otherwise known as Shrove Tuesday) occurs the day before Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday, of course, is the first day of Lent. For forty days (not counting Sundays), the liturgical calendar is purple and revolves around themes of sacrifice and repentance. So if we’re going to be extra sacrificial and sorrowful for six or seven weeks, we have to have a party to prepare for it. I’m not sure I get the real connection, but it seems like a good time would be in order. If I had planned it, however, I would have set the party date for the day after Lent—not the day prior.

So (until I get my way) Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, and all the fun, wild stuff will be just before Lent. I suppose it all makes perfect sense when you consider the day after Lent is Easter. While we want to (and should) celebrate The Resurrection, we certainly don’t want to do it with some of the traditions that have arisen surrounding Mardi Gras (I’ve heard about that bead thing).

Good Friday—This is kind of a strange term. I’ve heard it said, “We can only call it good from this side of the Resurrection.” I’m not sure why, but I have always found Good Friday to be the easiest day of the year to preach.  The hardest times for me to preach seem to be Christmas and Easter.  I can’t really explain that phenomenon, but that’s the way it seems to fall for me.ash-wednesday

If I could take an educated guess, I suppose it would be that Good Friday is so dramatic and stark. It provides it’s own tension and it can be viewed from so many angles. One might argue that Christmas and Easter do the same. In all honesty, I have to say it would be hard to refute that argument. I guess the main difference would be the apparent negativity of the Passion. Maybe I do better with negative messages than I do with positive ones. Go figure.

Easter—After we’ve woven through the days of eating fish, abstaining from sweets, and walking around with dirty foreheads, we get to the prize package. Easter is the best of all celebrations, because it’s for the best of all reasons. While we may not wish to celebrate it with bead necklaces and such, I’m not so sure eggs and bunnies are the way to go either. All of these things, when you get to the heart of them, are pagan symbols. While I’m not interested in ranting on the subject, I would still like to add that I always have a hard time biting into a chocolate crucifix. (This might be a good time to ask the now familiar question, “What would Jesus do?”)

Normalcy—As much as I like the whole Holy Week thing, I’m always glad when it’s over. There’s nothing like getting back to a normal routine (whatever that might mean).return-to-normalcy

Bad Tuesday in Brussels: Good Friday Around the Globe

By now, everyone has gotten an earful (as well as an eyeful) of the terrorist attack in Belgium. It’s a tragedy that many feared would happen. There were warnings, but connecting the dots and putting together all the puzzle pieces is rarely easy.

Whenever things like this occur, people are uneasy to the point of being afraid for their own lives. We were on a vacation in Florida when the Belgium attacks took place, and the flight home was a tad less than enjoyable. It was good to touch ground and even better to walk through our front door.the-cross

There are many words to describe such events. The adjective, bad, is possibly the most innocuous among them. Never the less, any event like that one is “bad.”

Interestingly enough, it took place during Holy Week. I doubt that was part of the consideration when the planning was done, but who knows? Holy Week is a mixture of good and bad occurrences including Jesus’ Triumphal Processional, his Passion, and concluding with his Resurrection. For a terrorist attack to be foisted upon us early in the most important week on the Christian calendar almost seems like appropriate timing (if anything like that could actually be considered appropriate).

“In a few short days, they changed their tune.”

During the early part of the original Holy Week, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowds were proclaiming him to be King and Messiah. They chanted his name shouting, “Hosanna in the highest!” In a few short days, they changed their tune.

On Thursday evening, Jesus hosted a Seder Supper for his disciples and instituted what many of us call the Sacrament of Holy Communion. He sent his betrayer out to do his worst and told everyone there to remember him after his body was broken and his blood shed for them.

“They didn’t connect the dots…”

Up to that point, he had been telling them he would soon die and rise again. They didn’t connect the dots or accept what he said (at least not in a literal sense). Because of that, they didn’t understand everything when it went down on Good Friday.

It was only after his Resurrection and subsequent appearances that it all finally sunk in. They consequently understood what he had been trying to tell them all along. They were set free from the consequences of their sin because of the sacrifice of their mentor who turned out to be God in the flesh.

emptytombBecause of his actions and completed work on the ross, Jesus neutralized the types of deeds perpetrated on us by the Belgium terrorists. It’s not that the loss of life and limb are any less real or horrific. It is rather that, in the grand scheme of things, we have been given ultimate victory over such evils.

Bad Tuesdays like the one we just lived through will always give way to Good Friday. The cross is the final death blow to any evil that may surround us. In light of his Resurrection, together we can shout, “Hosanna in the highest!”

 

Mailing It In: Knick-Knack Religion

IMG_1117I went to a major league, spring training baseball game in Florida recently. It was a lackluster
performance by the home team. The most exciting plays of the game were acted out by the team mascot (the Pirate Parrot). Let’s just say, it was rather disappointing.

I realize sporting events can be like that (especially games that don’t really mean anything like spring training games). As the old saying goes, “You can’t win them all.” That would be fine if I could go to “them all.” Unfortunately, I can only afford a few. When I dish out money, I usually hope there will be at least SOME excitement created by a hustling home team.

Fortunately, the home team in this case is quite good and promises to provide a lot of exhilarating moments during this coming season. It’s more than I can say for a lot of Christian congregations across the globe, however.

Discipleship is not sport!

I realize that comparing local churches to baseball teams is doing an apples to oranges thing. Discipleship is certainly not a sport, and it carries a lot more weight than any game. Never the less, the ministry of any church can either be a vital one or a lackluster affair.

When pro athletes just go through the motions, there is a phrase used to describe their efforts. That phrase is, “they just mailed it in.” Many of us in the church can often be described the same way. We just mail it in.

We can be very unenthusiastic about what we’re doing. We can simply go through the motions because we think it’s our duty, feel like we have to, or just don’t know what else to do. Mailing it in has become a way of life for many church folks these days.

Jesus becomes a relative knick-knack.

In the Book of the Revelation, Jesus tells the church in Ephesus they have lost their first love. In other words, they have basically put Jesus on the shelf and moved on to other things.

He’s still there on that shelf, visible and present. But he’s a relative knick-knack–window dressing for those who visit. He’s acknowledged, but he performs no other function than to be given passing ascent. He’s almost become a good luck charm for them.

Sadly, the church at Ephesus is alive and well today. So many of us give Jesus the nod as we pass by his shelf. He’s got his place, and he needs to stay there. We don’t want him getting involved and stirring the pot. You know how he can mess up our plans for a nice, comfortable life.

379479e20a3cd16e685fcb8ed7e1852cProbably the saddest part of all that is the phrase, “lost their first love.” When Christ is our first love–when he is our priority, when we are truly his disciples–we are a vibrant church.

When he holds any other position than number one, we begin to mail it in and put our energies toward other pursuits–namely our own. It’s clearly not the way to go.

Small Graces: The Little Things

pennyBack in 589 AD (as he lay dying), St. David of Wales said to his fellow monks, “Be joyful, keep the faith and do the little things.” I’ve heard it said that God is in the little things. I’m quite sure that’s true. I believe he’s in everything—big, small, and in between.

One of my favorite songwriters is a fellow by the name of Bob Bennett. He has a song (in fact an album) entitled Small Graces. The song is about the little moments in life that turn out to have a miraculous feel to them. It’s amazing how many of those there are in a day when we take the time to notice.

It wasn’t an earth-shattering miracle.

One day I was walking up the steps to the gym. For some reason, I glanced down just in time to notice a wad of chewed up bubble gum before I tramped on it. It seems like such a small thing. Yet for some reason, I stopped, picked up the wad, threw it into the trash and thanked the Lord for sparing me the ugliness of having to clean all that gum off my shoe.

That’s certainly not an earth-shattering miracle. Nonetheless, it wsmall coneas important to me at the time. Looking back, it seems obviously insignificant. Still, it mattered when it happened.

We are entering a time the church has labeled, “Holy Week.” It’s a week of large graces and the biggest miracle of all. The death and resurrection of our Lord cannot be surpassed in terms of importance. Without it, we are less than nothing.

Yet, we can often go through an entire day without thinking of the Easter miracle or the Passion of the Christ. We can quickly forget who we are in Jesus. We can drift off course due to the enormity of it. After all, we’re so small. How do we fit that magnificent event into our little lives?

Small graces are little signposts to remind us.

We can, of course, but we often allow it to settle into the catacombs of our minds. Sometimes it’s just too hard to think about. As people like to say these days, we can’t seem to wrap our heads around it.

That’s where, I believe, the small graces come into play. That’s where the little things begin to pop up. They seem to be little signposts along the way to remind us of what and who we are in Christ. They’re almost like guardrails along the highway of life keeping us on the straight and narrow.

small-dogIf you find a quarter on the sidewalk or experience a genuine smile from a stranger, it’s not something to be lightly dismissed. Life is too precious for us to fritter it away merely looking for the big things.

Jesus lived in a time when there was no TV, no major sporting events for the common folk, or no big purchase to hope for down the line. How did they do it? I think they got by on the small graces. Look for yours this week.

What Saint is That?

“Really interesting things happen at the gym.”

roman-baths-cartoon

My workouts aside, one place I invariably go is the steam room. I’m quite good at that, and I wouldn’t miss it. I’m not sure of the benefits associated with steam baths, but they sure make me feel good. No wonder the Romans built elaborate structures to take them.

One day, I headed into the steam room after a great workout. I was wearing a pair of trunks and had a lanyard around my neck with my gym ID and locker key attached (I know, I’m a dork—so sue me). I parked myself in my usual spot at the far corner of the steam room, opposite the door.

After I had been in there a few minutes, another gentleman popped in and sat down next to the door. He was about as far away from me as one could get and still be in the same room. That was fine with me. I’m not into sharing my steam space.

“I was a bit tense.”

After several minutes, he stood up, and I assumed he was headed to the door. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I saw him walking diagonally across the steam room—in my direction. To be honest, alarm bells started going off in my head.

By the time he got to me, I was a bit tense. I wasn’t sure what was about to happen, but I was ready for anything. Defending myself was foremost in my mind.

He leaned over me, looked at my lanyard, and said, “What saint is that?” By this time, my mind was racing. Sainthood wasn’t one of the topics I was pondering. I was so distracted that I didn’t understand what he asked. I maintained my outwardly cool demeanor and said, “What?”

 

“The guy’s lucky I didn’t punch him in the nose.”

Then he looked more closely at my IDand key and said, “Oh. That’s not a saint.” Then he turned to walk away. As he headed out the door, he said, “YOU must be the saint.” To that, I immediately replied, “Yes. I’m the saint.”

I admit; I didn’t FEEL like much of a saint. The guy’s lucky I didn’t punch him in the nose.

Yet, I told him the truth. I am a saint. I don’t say that very often, because a lot of folks misunderstand what that means. When the Apostle Paul wrote his letters to the church, he always addressed the congregants as “saints.”

Holy and set apart…

The Biblical word translated as saint literally means “holy one.” In the context of Scripture, “holy” simply means “set apart for God’s purposes.” For example: In the Jewish Temple, there was a “holy” knife used in sacrifices. How can a knife be holy? It’s holy when it’s set apart for God’s purposes.

That’s why you and I can be called saints. We’re set apart for God’s purposes. We don’t always act like it, but we are. So don’t feel too self-conscious about calling yourself a saint. Never the less, keep your eyes peeled in the steam room.

DCF 1.0

 

Back to the Gym: Five Baby Steps

elliptical I went back to the gym after a long layoff. Today was day two of my comeback trail. It’s an adventure in self-discipline.

The lack of self-discipline can screw up anyone’s life. That’s particularly true of a Christian life. If we’re going to “make disciples” as Jesus told us to, we’re going to have to be disciples ourselves. You can’t lead someone into Christian disciplines if you aren’t practicing them yourself. The best you can do is to tell them what you think it should look like.

You might be a Christian who has gotten off the beaten path (spiritually speaking). Maybe you’re one who never even got onto that path. Don’t feel too badly about it. It happens to the best of us. The good news is, it’s not all that hard to get pointed in the right direction.

Have you gotten sick of yourself?

I finally got back to the gym because I was sick of my rotund self. I didn’t feel good, I didn’t look good, and I didn’t have any good excuse.

It’s the same with our Christian discipleship. My bet is, many of you are sick of your lack of true discipleship. Some of you probably don’t even know what it means to be a disciple of Christ. When you hear the word, disciple, you think of twelve guys that lived 2000 years ago. Those guys were the first, but they were never intended to be the last.

Just take baby steps for starters.

When I finally decided to turn things around weight-wise, I just took a couple of small steps. I packed my knapsack, drove to the gym, and got on an elliptical machine. It was that simple. An hour or so later, I’m done at the gym. Yet it impacts the rest of my day.

Getting back on track as an everyday disciple of Jesus is no different. It’s simple self-discipline. While there’s a lot that can be involved with living a Christian life, let me give you five simple things to try that can get you on the right track.

  1. Read a Bible passage before you get out of bed in the morning.
  2. Use a devotional guide to get you started (there are a lot of good ones out there).
  3. Start a prayer journal. After reading the Bible passage and looking over the devotional, say something to the Lord about it. It could be a comment, a question, or even a complaint. Write it down in your journal and mark the date. In time, you’ll look back and be amazed.
  4. Read a good, Christian book (maybe a classic that will challenge you).
  5. Talk to a Christian friend about the things the Lord is showing you.

dare-to-be-a-discipleThese things are not the beginning and end of a life of discipleship. However, they’re good disciplines to help you back onto the path. The ball’s in your court.

You may not want to do any of these things. I didn’t want to get back to the gym either, but I’m glad I did.

Back to the Gym: A Biblical Mandate

                                    Not Me
Not Me

I went back to the gym the other day after a rather lengthy hiatus. My stomach has begun to protrude to the point where I am starting to lose track of my feet. On top of that, I just don’t feel good being overweight. What’s worst is that, when I gain weight, I snore at night. It’s just not good for marital relations.

As I look back over the past four months (the length of time I skipped out on my usual physical regimen), I’m trying to figure out just why it took so long for me to get back into the swing of things. As I take inventory, I note that I have many excuses—holidays; company; illness; undone tasks; errands to run; deadlines to meet; and the ever popular, “I’ll start back up tomorrow.”

“It felt good.”

However, the real and overriding reason is simply that I got out of the habit. Sadly, it didn’t take much. A few days of avoiding my healthy habits easily turned into a few weeks and then a few months. Now, I’m paying the price—big time.

The day I went back was just as I knew it would be. It felt good. The workout, itself, was not the source of my pleasure. The simple satisfaction that I was back on track was the prime reason for my gratification. The fact that I had finally taken the first step toward a slimmer me was a pleasurable thing in itself.

“Admittedly, I have a long way to go.”

Frankly, I got sick of not being able to zip up my jeans. One day at the gym is not going to fix that. Still, if I discipline myself to keep going back three or four times per week, I will slowly chip away at the spare tire I’ve built.

That, of course, is the primary goal. It’s not so much the reduction of my midsection (as important as that is to me). It’s the practice of self-discipline that is paramount. It carries a lot of weight (pardon the pun) because it bleeds over into every other area of my life.

Not Me Either
Not Me Either

That, in fact, is the area of life that most of us as Christians fail to address. For many of us, our lack of self-discipline is pathetic. Some of you may be thinking, “Speak for yourself, Zuchelli!” Okay, I will. But I’m sure I’ve got a lot of company.

You don’t have to stare at the word, discipline, very long until you notice the strong resemblance to another word—disciple. A disciple is someone who disciplines him or herself in the ways of another. As a Christian, I am called to discipline myself in the ways of Christ. Like my break from the gym, it’s easy to set aside the discipline of learning and living in the manner of Jesus.

The last thing Jesus told us was to go and make disciples. The way I figure it, we can’t make disciples if we’re not disciples ourselves…(to be continued)…